David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

NIU, VA Tech, and mass shootings: some thoughts

I think everybody has abandoned posts in files somewhere; stuff you wrote up, but never finished, or finished but then never got around to posting.

I wrote the original form of this after the Virginia Tech massacre, but never posted it. For a combination of reasons: I wasn't entirely happy with the concluding parts; I didn't think it would go well coming so soon after the massacre; and as time passed, I realized I'd been thankfully wrong about a couple of predictions (the first paragraph is one). But as recent events make clear, I think it's better to post this; I know lots of people who work in university settings, which appears to be the default for things like this. And it's worth thinking about these scenarios, and what you can do to be prepared.

VA Tech: After-Action Report

Let me begin by stating the following: this is not a criticism of the victims who died at or survived the Virginia Tech massacre. This is an attempt to learn from their efforts, to see what worked and what didn't, so that next time people might be better prepared. There will be a next time. It may be very soon -- you can thank the good folks at NBC for that. (If they'd aired Cho's clips a year, two years from now, it wouldn't matter as much. But now, while it's the biggest story in the country, these contemptible, ratings-grabbing fools have just told every wanna-be spree killer in the country: "Hey, if you kill enough people, WE'LL PUT YOUR RANTINGS ON TV.")

[Edited to add: looking back at this now, it's downright amazing that we haven't seen more would-be video commentary from spree killers. There was one other case of a videocasting murderer (not in the United States); I'm very surprised there haven't been more, but Matthew Murray, the recent Colorado churches gunman, posted to an online discussion forum between his spates of homicide. The media, however, has continued to be incredibly exactly as irresponsible as you'd expect regarding the coverage of spree killers; columnist Dave Kopel has some fine suggestions for what more responsible media coverage would look like. They're still not getting it: the fellow who shot up the city council in Kirkwood, MO, got a picture of his beaming face as his official portrait. None of the articles I read, incidentally, condescended to run photographs of the victims.]

So, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on what we can learn from the VA Tech massacre, from a defensive standpoint. It's time to start outthinking spree killers: Seung Hui Cho clearly learned from what came before, and if we're going to survive in a world with him and his ilk, we had damn well better learn too.


The initial response to the shootings in Norris Hall, where all but two victims were killed, was confusion. People who heard the first gunshots asked themselves, "Was that...?" and then wound up getting shot.

This is understandable. The people in Norris Hall were going about their normal day and had no reason to expect a mass-murdering lunatic dropping in. Many of them initially mistook the gunshots for construction noise. The victims were, to use Jeff Cooper's color code, in Condition White, and their initial reaction was slow.

The initial step in any defensive situation is the recognition of a threat. The defenders at VA Tech were mentally unprepared to face the situation. They were required to shift gears immediately from zero threat to *lethal* threat, from Cooper's White to Red, and react in order to meet or evade said threat. That's very difficult to do, even for people trained to do it. It's much harder if you're not even prepared for the possibility.



This was not a bad response. It was hampered by the lack of preparedness on the part of most of the parties involved. Here's a question, for those folks who spend a lot of time in a university setting: do your classroom doors lock? If so, how do you lock them? From the inside? Do you need a key? I'm done with coursework, so I don't go to classrooms these days, but over the years I have spent a hell of a lot of time in the classrooms in one campus building -- and off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you how to lock 'em. I hadn't thought that I'd ever need to do it. I didn't even look. I don't know what VA Tech's doors do, and until they tried to keep Cho out on that morning I bet the folks inside those rooms didn't either.

The people who tried keeping Cho out, to varying degrees of success, apparently weren't able to lock the doors and so went for the barricade technique. At least one classroom kept Cho completely out by this means. Others were not so fortunate, but several were able to temporarily delay Cho's entry. This delay was important, as many students escaped by jumping out of the windows. Such an evacuation would not have been as effective on higher floors, or in classrooms without windows, or windows too small to access. Look at the rooms where you spend your time. Think about escape plans. One suggestion I've seen (here) that struck me as useful: doorstops could be potentially *VERY* useful for blockading a door, providing it opens toward you.


This is where things started to fall apart: there was no real third response.

It is a military maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The defensive plan was not bad: "keep the killer out and escape." The problem with this strategy was the lack of a backup plan. What do you do if you can't keep the killer out, even just long enough for you to escape?

The people left alive and in Cho's path after he forced his way into the classrooms continued to follow a defensive plan. According to the NEW YORK TIMES, several attempted to use desks as cover. The WASHINGTON POST reports that others curled into balls on the floor or lay flat; some played dead. These strategies failed, and it's important to understand why.

The use of desks as cover was a bad idea, because a desk is not cover. A desk is concealment. There is a big difference between the two. A desk may, if you are hunched down and the angle is right, block an attacker from seeing you. What a classroom desk almost certainly won't do is stop a bullet. That's the difference between concealment and cover. If someone is shooting at you, or about to be, what you want is cover. You want something that'll stop a bullet. A closed door, incidentally, is not cover. Neither is drywall. Bear that in mind.

Playing dead, as a tactic, has been successful for some victims in other mass shootings. It worked for Mark Taylor, who was shot by Harris and Klebold at the Columbine High massacre. It also worked for the victims of Kimveer Gill, of the September 13, 2006 shooting at Dawson College in Montreal. Gill is worth considering for a moment, because he was a thankfully ineffective would-be spree killer: he only killed one person of the twenty he shot, in part because he typically did not shoot people more than once. He shot them, watched them drop, and then moved on to the next victim. These tactics left many more wounded than killed. (Gill was also interrupted by police response *very* quickly -- a couple of cops were in the area and responded within a couple of minutes -- so that helped, too.) The sole fatality reportedly spoke to Gill after she was down, thus getting his attention. Playing dead did not work against Cho, because he very carefully and methodically went around shooting people multiple times *after they were down.* Those who played dead and survived did so by sheer luck.

I do not recommend playing dead, because at least some future spree killers will seek to emulate many of the successful tactics used by Cho.


The major areas where the VA Tech defenders lost ground were:

  1. Failure to speedily recognize and respond to the threat.

  2. Mixed results with regard to barricading the doors.

  3. Lack of a back-up plan when the barricades were broached.

These difficulties are entirely understandable, given the situation, and do not reflect poorly on the defenders at all.

Some discussions of the shooting at VA Tech included arguments about whether, and how, the unarmed defenders should have fought back. The passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, after all, organized an ad hoc militia that successfully disrupted a major part of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In my view, this is not a fair comparison. The Flight 93 militia had three key advantages over the defenders at VA Tech.

  1. The lives of the Flight 93 militia were not under immediate threat.

    The 9/11 hijackers did not kill people on the plane just to kill people on the plane. That, as Dr. Lecter says, was incidental. Their plan was to control the plane for long enough to use it as a guided missile. Prolonged violence on board the plane would have made for an unnecessary risk. The hijackers counted on the initial display of force, and the threat of further violence, to keep the passengers in line, but were not physically attacking them at the time the militia acted. It is a lot easier to think and act when somebody is not actively trying to murder you right now.

  2. The Flight 93 militia had access to information about the nature of the threat.

    The Flight 93 passengers were able to make cell phone calls to friends, family, and authorities. They learned about the attacks on the World Trade Center, and gleaned something of the terrorists' plans. They did not have to think about how to preserve their lives moment to moment; they were able to understand the nature of the threat, realize the need for counter-action, and psychologically prepare themselves to take it. They could see the hijackers; they knew how many there were, and where, and how they were armed. If you were at VA Tech and you saw Seung Hui Cho, that's probably because he was shooting at you.

  3. The Flight 93 militia had time to formulate a plan.

    One person charging the cockpit would have failed. Several people charging the cockpit gave the hijackers a very bad day. They were able to do that because the hijackers' strategy left them an opportunity to organize. The defenders of Norris Hall did not have that opportunity. One man, an army veteran, did attempt a counter-attack. He was shot and killed. It is worth noting that he attempted to save lives by engaging Cho in the hallway. He actively attempted to stop the threat, but did so without cover or assistance. This was extraordinarily brave; I'd even say heroic. Unfortunately, it didn't work.


If you should, God forbid, find yourself in a situation similar to the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Valentine's Day shooting at Northern Illinois University, and you are yourself unarmed (very likely in academic settings, which often ban the carrying of firearms, even by credentialed and trained citizens), here are my recommendations.

  • Locking or barricading the door between you and the killer, then attempting to escape, is a viable strategy. It may be the best one, particularly if you are unarmed.

    A couple of well-placed doorstops, if the door opens inwards, could save lives in such a situation. Remember: this only works if the wall provides you with cover. Bullets go through drywall very easily.

  • If the blockading strategy fails, and you cannot escape, *be prepared to respond aggressively.*

    A spree killer does not want your money or your car; he wants your life, and if you go passive odds are he'll take it. He may be interested in taking hostages, but I don't think I'd bet on that.

  • Evaluate objects in terms of their use as cover or weapons.

    A desk or a chair is not good for stopping a bullet. But it can be a decent weapon. You can pick it up and swing it, or you can throw it. You can also throw books, backpacks -- anything heavy. You want to put the killer on the defensive, because then he's less likely to be able to shoot you.

  • The killer is most vulnerable at the moment he enters a room: his view is constrained by the doorway, and unless (as Cho did) he's peeked beforehand, *he doesn't know what's in there.*

    If I were going to attack a spree killer, that's when I'd do it. This is why cops place emphasis on clearing corners.

  • If you attack alone, the odds are good that you will be shot. Being shot is not necessarily fatal or even immediately incapacitating. If you decide to attack and get shot in the process, do not stop to think, "Oh crap, I'm shot." Continue your attack. If you stop and think about it, two things will likely happen: you will go into shock, and you will be killed when he shoots you again.

  • Attack fast, attack hard, and do not stop attacking while you are physically capable of doing so. Attack in a group if at all possible. You do not have to kill the shooter outright. You do have to render the shooter incapable of further action. Take the shooter down, keep the shooter down, and yell for people to help you. Get a pile of people going, get the gun away, keep the shooter from getting the gun back or resisting.


A postscript: after the Omaha mall shooting, many of the gun blogs I read linked to or republished a piece (originally published here) that purports to be an eyewitness account by a person within the mall during the shooting. According to the claimed eyewitness, he was perpendicular to the firing line of the shooter at a distance of forty meters, and felt that he could have killed the shooter, or at least made things more difficult for him, if he'd had a gun. He did not. The Omaha mall, like a lot of public settings, is a gun-free zone: weapons are prohibited, which does not deter psychopaths but does deter law-abiding folks with concealed weapons permits. This policy does not seem wise to me.

There are, of course, no guarantees. On November 20, 2005, a young man attempted a mass murder at the Tacoma Mall, in Tacoma, Washington. Dan McKown, a concealed weapons permit holder, was working as an assistant manager of a store there. He drew his gun and told the shooter to drop his weapon, but did not fire at the shooter -- McKown was reluctant to kill, and he feared that he would get in trouble for pulling his own gun. The shooter felt no such reluctance, and shot McKown several times, partially paralyzing him. (No one was killed, fortunately, and McKown was the most severely injured person there.) The shooter may voluntarily desist in the face of armed opposition (the Appalachian School of Law shooting, which occurred on January 16, 2002, and was interrupted by two armed students and several unarmed ones, is a case in point), but that is not the way to bet. The average criminal may often be dissuaded by the knowledge that his civilian target is armed (in most civilian defensive uses of firearms, the gun is never fired), but spree killers are a different breed. For one thing, they're suicidal.

That last part is something that I find hopeful, particularly in light of Matthew Murray's attacks on Colorado churches: Youth With a Mission in Arvada and New Life Church in Colorado Springs. His spree ended at the latter: Jeanne Assam, a former police officer, had a concealed weapons permit and had volunteered to create emergency plans for her church. She fired at the shooter, mortally wounding him. He then committed suicide. Curiously, this is almost exactly what happened with Kimveer Gill: the police interrupted Gill's rampage and shot him (although not fatally); Gill, his efforts interrupted, blew his brains out.

To me, this is an excellent outcome, and offers real hope. Here's my take: *spree killers are on a murder-suicide mission.* They do not expect to get away. This means that they are difficult to dissuade, but they can potentially be derailed. If their plans for the first part of the plan go sufficiently off-script, there is a good chance they will proceed to the second. If a spree killer is wounded, he is likely to commit suicide, because that's what he was going to do anyway, and if he goes out by his own hand he is still in control.

The trick is to make them shift to Plan B.
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